Chavez's cancer revelation rattles VenezuelaCARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez's revelation that he is battling cancer raises questions about the future of his drive to bring socialism to Venezuela and create a Latin America free of Washington's influence.
By: By Ian James, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez's revelation that he is battling cancer raises questions about the future of his drive to bring socialism to Venezuela and create a Latin America free of Washington's influence.
The biggest question, though, is just how sick is he?
Suddenly, the issue isn't so much about how long Chavez should govern after 12 often tumultuous years in power, but how long he can.
In a surprise announcement Thursday night, Chavez disclosed that he had a cancerous tumor removed while on a trip to Cuba last month, though he didn't give details about what kind of cancer or say how soon he might return home.
During his tenure, Chavez has become a maverick leftist voice and an oil-rich benefactor for governments from Cuba to Nicaragua to Bolivia. His campaign to counter U.S. influence in Latin America has led him to build alliances with foes of Washington across the globe, from Iran to Libya's Moammar Ghadafi.
Now the uncertainty over his health has raised questions about how long that will continue and whether a successor would maintain what Chavez's opponents call his policy of “checkbook diplomacy” to prop up the region's left. Chavez denies accusations that he has lavished excessive oil-funded aid on allies, saying his government's oil deals with allies such as Cuba are mutually beneficial.
Chavez aides insisted Friday that the president was still fully in charge and working from Cuba while recovering, though it was unclear how long his recuperation might take.
In the streets, hundreds of the ailing leader's supporters poured into a downtown plaza, shouting “Onward, commander!”
“With the grace of God, he's going to get through all of this, and we're going to wait for him to return with all the strength in the world,” said Luis Rodriguez, a Chavez supporter who joined the crowd.
Chavez spoke live on Cuban television in a telephone interview Friday night, saying: “We're optimistic and we know we'll get out of this.”
Venezuelan state television also aired prerecorded video of a meeting in Cuba on Wednesday in which Chavez was shown discussing road projects and other issues with his brother Adan, his foreign minister and a military chief. “Despite the difficulties, Venezuela will be victorious,” Chavez said.
The effort to portray business as usual comes after three weeks of uncertainty in which Chavez was largely out of sight and speculation was rife that he might be seriously ill. Before his speech on Thursday, Venezuelans had heard only that Chavez had undergone surgery to remove a pelvic abscess.
The 56-year-old Chavez was noticeably thinner and pale as he disclosed he had two operations in Cuba, including one that removed a tumor in which there were “cancerous cells.”
The socialist leader had previously vowed to win re-election next year and govern for another decade or more. Now he has yet to say whether that plan still stands.
In a country where the political system is so clearly identified with Chavez, it will be difficult for the president's “socialist revolution” to continue without him, analysts say.
“Chavismo without Chavez doesn't exist,” said Joel D. Hirst, an international affairs fellow at the Washington-based Council of Foreign Relations. “The revolution is really about one man.”
“If for some reason Chavez was not able to continue as president or to run in the 2012 election, it would produce a tectonic shift in Latin American politics.”
Diego Moya-Ocampos, a political analyst with IHS Global Insight in London, agreed, calling Chavez's announcement a “game-changer” because there is no obvious successor.
Chavez revealed limited details about his illness, saying only that the tumor was in the pelvic region and that he was continuing to receive treatment in Cuba. As for the surgery, Chavez said “there were no complications.”
“Statistically, it would most likely be a colorectal cancer,” said Dr. Michael Pishvaian, a cancer specialist at Georgetown University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center who was not involved in the Venezuelan leader's treatment.
“It's not unheard of for a gastrointestinal cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, to have broken through the colon and be surrounded by an abscess, a collection of infected cells,” he said.
In such cases, the cancer is discovered when cells from the abscess are examined later. A second surgery might be done to remove any additional cancer and nearby lymph nodes to see whether it had spread.
“Treatment could range from simple observation, if this was a very early-stage cancer, to chemotherapy to try to prevent recurrence of the cancer if it was very advanced, and potentially even radiation therapy,” Pishvaian said. “The potential for recovery all really depends on the type of cancer and the stage of the cancer.”
Get-well messages for Chavez poured in from the leaders of Colombia, Argentina and other nations. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a cancer survivor, was among them.
“You don't lack courage, President Chavez, and you can be certain that you also don't lack the solidarity of all your friends,” Rousseff wrote in her message to Chavez, according to the blog of the president's office.
Some opposition politicians have called for Chavez to temporarily cede his duties to Vice President Elias Jaua. Chavez's allies, however, insisted he remains firmly in control of government affairs, even as he has been recovering.
Jaua assured the country on Friday that there was no need for Chavez to cede his duties as president.
“The president is going to be (in Cuba) for the time period his doctors prescribe,” Jaua said on television, noting that the National Assembly has authorized Chavez to remain in Cuba as long as he needs.
Under Venezuela's constitution, the vice president may take the president's place during temporary absences of up to 90 days, which the National Assembly may extend for 90 days more — for a total of about six months.
When Jaua was asked by a Colombian radio station, La W, about that time limit, he said: “That's what the constitution establishes as the time for a temporary absence.”
“We're absolutely certain that ... the president will be here before 180 days,” Jaua said.
If Chavez were to die or resign, Jaua would serve the remainder of Chavez's term.
Some observers suggested that Chavez's absence might have a negative impact on the bloc of left-leaning nations, known as the Bolivarian Alliance, or ALBA, that the Venezuelan leader has led while crusading against U.S. influence in the region.
“The longer the president is in Cuba, the clearer... the fractures are going to become within the Chavista movement, and in particular between the Marxist factions and the factions closer to military sectors,” Moya-Ocampos said.
Jaua and other close Chavez allies insisted they are united, and the vice president accused opponents of falsely trying to create the impression of a “vacuum of power” in the country. Jaua assured the country that the situation is stable and “there is a government in full operation.”
The opposition questioned the government's handling of the situation.
“The government doesn't respect us when it says it's functioning normally,” said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, a spokesman for the country's opposition coalition. “Because it isn't functioning normally, and they know it.”
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Patricia Rondon Espin in Caracas, Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo, Lisa J. Adams in Mexico City and AP Medical Writer Marilynn Marchione in Milwaukee contributed to this report.